The Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range (EGTTR) composes a large swathe of the Gulf of Mexico near Florida, where the Air Force tests weapons. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed part of the Gulf as a habitat for an endangered whale species nearby. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) wrote a letter against the proposal, arguing the testing range is vital when Russia and China are acting more aggressively.
For context, NOAA's Fisheries division announced in July that they had requested 28,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico act as a reservation for Rice's whale, a species of baleen (such as blue and humpback whales) with less than 100 individuals estimated to remain in the area.
Sen. Rubio's letter acknowledged the necessity of preserving endangered species. But at the same time, "our country cannot afford to thwart the ability of our nation’s test ranges from supporting advanced weapon development."
Additionally, the EGTTR is the only area east of the Mississippi qualified to hold an air-to-ground supersonic and hypersonic missile range, "a critical capability which the U.S. trails both Russia and China in development," as Sen. Rubio wrote.
Moreover, the proposed range for Rice's whales is larger than previous NOAA rulings for other sea life, further hamstringing the ability of the United States to develop and test new weapons, even as the letter pointed out no Rice's whales are known to have been killed or injured as a result.
Because of this, Rubio said NOAA should cooperate with the Department of Defense (DOD) to make an exception for the EGTTR.
"As you know, this is not a novel concept as these testing and training activities qualify as military readiness activities. A national security exception would allow for these critical national security missions to continue while acknowledging that the U.S. Air Force, and other users of the EGTTR, have operated responsibly in the Gulf for more than 50 years," the letter concluded.
Rubio's request comes hot on the heels of his demand for disaster relief funds for Florida fisheries after Hurricane Idalia.